Investigating slavery in Mauritania

The UN's special rapporteur on modern forms of slavery, Gulnara Shahinian, is due to complete a two-week fact-finding visit to Mauritania with a press conference today.

Despite legislation against it, light-skinned Arab Muslims (bidanes) continue to own black-skinned haratines, though estimates of the numbers vary wildly. Many technically "freed" slaves are said to remain dependent on their former masters.

A report by Anti-Slavery International in 2002 said:

Virtually all cases of slavery in Mauritania concern individuals whose ancestors were enslaved many generations ago. Birth continues to impose slave status on different ethnic groups, whereby they are viewed as slaves by some and as servants or family retainers by others. They typically work as herders of livestock, agricultural workers and domestic servants, but remain completely dependent on their traditional masters to whom they pass virtually all the money they earn or for whom they work directly in exchange for food and lodgings.

Slavery in Mauritania was officially abolished by a presidential decree in 1981 but it was not until 2007 that a law was passedcriminalising the practice, with penalties of up to 10 years in jail for owning slaves.

Before leaving for Mauritania, Ms Shahinian – the first UN slavery expert to visit the country – said her aim was to investigate "the impact of this newly-adopted legislation”. She will present a report on her findings to the Human Rights Council next year. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 November 2009.